JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - A prominent Shi’ite Muslim cleric wanted for “sedition” was arrested in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province late on Sunday after being shot in the leg by police in an exchange of fire, the Interior Ministry said.
Activists said reports that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr had been arrested prompted demonstrations in the mostly Shi’ite Qatif region of the Eastern Province, which has been the focal point of protests alleging discrimination, and where the cleric was seen as a leading radical.
Shi’ite activists and websites reported that at least two men had been killed in the protests, but there was no independent confirmation of the deaths and a government spokesman was not immediately able to comment on the reports of demonstrations or casualties.
“When the aforementioned person and those with him tried to resist the security men and initiated shooting and crashed into one of the security patrols while trying to escape, he was dealt with in accordance with the situation and responded to in kind and arrested after he was wounded in his thigh,” the state news agency reported, citing Major General Mansour Turki, an Interior Ministry spokesman.
Turki said Nimr, who was accused of sedition, had been taken to hospital.
Tawfiq al-Seif, a Shi’ite community leader, said reports of the arrest had sparked protests in the village of Awamiya, which is in the Qatif district.
An activist in Awamiya said he had witnessed a protest march of thousands of people and that he had seen 20 injured in a clash with riot police.
Activists from the Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites live, posted pictures on the Internet of a grey-bearded man they identified as Nimr inside a vehicle. He was covered with what appeared to be a blood-stained white blanket.
Sheikh Nimr’s brother said the cleric was detained by police while driving from a farm to his house in al-Qatif.
“They (police) took him from his car and blood can be seen near his car,” said his brother Mohammed al-Nimr.
“He had been wanted by the Interior Ministry for a couple of months because of his political views. In the past couple of months he has adopted a lot of Shi’ite issues and expressed his views on them, demanding their rights,” Nimr’s brother added.
Nimr was previously detained for several days in 2004 and 2006, his brother said.
American diplomats who met Nimr in August 2008 described him as a second-tier figure in Saudi Shi’ite politics, but one who was growing in popularity, according to two contemporary diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
In January 2008, he gave a sermon calling for the creation of a “righteous opposition front”, said the cables.
The cleric represents a more radical strain among Saudi Shi’ites, who feel the community’s established leaders have failed to make headway with ending what they see as systematic discrimination.
“The general feeling is that (older leaders) couldn’t deliver what they promised or what the government promised them. Then there was Nimr who could represent the radical forces - the forces that deny the state has the ability to follow its promises. That’s why a good part of the new generation have listened to him,” said Seif.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and a key U.S. ally, has largely escaped the kind of protests that have toppled four Arab heads of state since last year.
Shi’ites say they struggle to get government jobs or university places, that their neighborhoods suffer under-investment and that their places of worship are often closed down. The government denies charges of discrimination.
Small and sporadic protests had taken place in the Eastern Province, where the oil sector is concentrated and where most of the kingdom’s Shi’ites live, leading to four deaths earlier this year.
The protests have been centered in Qatif, an oasis district on the Gulf coast consisting of the town also named Qatif and fishing and farming villages. No protests have been reported in recent months in al-Ahsa, the other main Shi’ite population centre in the Eastern Province.
A government census from 2001 showed there were just over a million Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia. However an International Crisis Group report from 2005 said they numbered around two million.
In January, the kingdom ordered the arrest of 23 Shi’ites in Eastern Province accused of being responsible for unrest that had led to shootings and protests in previous weeks.
Reporting by Asma Al Sharif; Writing and additional reporting by Angus McDowall in London; editing by Sami Aboudi and Christopher Wilson